Spotlight Team: Gerard O’Neill (editor), Stephen A. Kurkjian (assistant editor), Alexander B. Hawes Jr., Richard Kindleberger, William Doherty, Herbert Black, and Joan Vennochi (researcher)
By the late 1970s, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire was one of nine sites servicing the nation’s nuclear submarine force. It employed 20,000 workers — welders, machinists, pipe fitters, and others — and, as the Spotlight team would discover, their illness and death rates ran at nearly twice the national average.
It started when Dr. Thomas Najarian of Boston’s Veterans Administration Hospital was treating a worker suffering from a rare leukemia. Najarian suspected that the cancer, and other cases he’d heard of, were due to exposure to high radiation and other carcinogens. When shipyard officials maintained that Portsmouth’s radiation levels were within acceptably low ranges, Najarian approached the Globe for help.
Spotlight reporters requested data from Navy and shipyard brass and workers’ unions, only to be rebuffed. With Najarian’s assistance, however, they began looking at public death records. Reporters examined some 100,000 in all, and interviewed nearly 600 next of kin. One retired shipyard worker and five co-workers had been sprayed with radioactive water when a hose burst — four of the six had died of cancer, yet the shipyard denied responsibility.
Before publishing the story in February 1978, the team submitted 10 specific questions to Portsmouth officials; all went unanswered. But to undermine the Spotlight project, the yard commander slipped copies of the initial findings to a dozen New England members of Congress. Questions soon began flying at hearings on Capitol Hill. Admiral Hyman Rickover, head of the nation’s nuclear submarine force, did recommend further study, but also criticized the Globe for not turning over the names of the deceased workers cited, cast doubt on Najarian’s medical credentials, and questioned whether Portsmouth had a serious problem.
As it turned out, the Navy had been conducting its own preliminary investigation — compiled the previous year and detailed in a December 1978 Spotlight follow-up — and had already found “serious” radiation control deficiencies at the shipyard. Most exposure accidents resulted from radioactive water coming into contact with workers’ skin, the report said. There was also evidence of contaminated material discharged into the harbor, “uneven” medical supervision, inadequate training, and safeguard failures.
The Globe series and House hearings also caught the attention of an anti-nuclear group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, which called Rickover’s testimony “a grave disservice” to the nation’s defense agencies and asked the House committee to look into whether there had been a coverup. A year later, federal health investigators and civilian experts visited Portsmouth to further assess its cancer risks. In 2005, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a study, finding that the risk of contracting leukemia increased with repeated exposure to radiation and other carcinogenic materials at the shipyard.
“The Globe did a lot of work on this and did it really well,” says Najarian, now retired from medical practice, noting that the series led to an overhaul of the shipyard’s command structure. More importantly, it helped change public perceptions about the risks of working with radioactive materials.
Decades later, Portsmouth remains one of the country’s four naval shipyards that service nuclear submarines, and has earned several workplace safety and environmental impact awards.
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